MEPS 314:135-148 (2006)  -  doi:10.3354/meps314135

Variation in bleaching sensitivity of two coral species across a latitudinal gradient on the Great Barrier Reef: the role of zooxanthellae

Karin E. Ulstrup1,2, Ray Berkelmans1, Peter J. Ralph2, Madeleine J. H. van Oppen1,*

1Australian Institute of Marine Science, PMB No. 3, Townsville MC, Queensland 4810, Australia
2Institute for Water and Environmental Resource Management, Department of Environmental Science, University of Technology, Sydney, Westbourne St., Gore Hill, New South Wales 2065, Australia
*Corresponding author. Email:

ABSTRACT: The ability of corals to cope with environmental change, such as increased temperature, relies on the physiological mechanisms of acclimatisation and long-term genetic adaptation. We experimentally examined the bleaching sensitivity exhibited by 2 species of coral, Pocillopora damicornis and Turbinaria reniformis, at 3 locations across a latitudinal gradient of almost 6 degrees on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Target bleaching temperature was reached by using a ramping rate of 0.2°C/h. We found that the bleaching sensitivity and recovery of both species differed between corals with clade D symbionts and those with clade C. However, in P. damicornis bleaching susceptibility corresponded more strongly with latitude than with zooxanthella type and hence, temperature history, suggesting that local adaptation has occurred. The observed bleaching sensitivity was shown by a decrease in photochemical efficiency (Fv/Fm) in both species of coral. The rate of recovery in T. reniformis was highest in explants containing clade D symbionts. The occurrence of clade D in the northern section of the GBR may reflect a long-term response to high sea water temperatures, while the presence of clade D in low abundance in T. reniformis at Heralds Prong Reef and Percy Island may be a result of recent bleaching events.


KEY WORDS: Temperature tolerance · Corals · Bleaching · Zooxanthellae · Symbiodinium · Fv/Fm


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